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The Life of Jesus - Series 3: Episode 9

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 9:9-13
Mark 2:13-17
Luke 5:27-32

Matthew, a customs officer working for the Romans, responds to Jesus' call and throws a party for his friends. Jesus attends and is criticised. He quotes Hosea and promotes mercy as an attitude for his followers.

Matthew, a customs officer working for the Romans, responds to Jesus' call and throws a party for his friends. Jesus attends and is criticised. He quotes Hosea and promotes mercy as an attitude for his followers.


Hello and welcome to Series 3 and Episode number 9, in which Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. We're going to take the story from Matthew's Gospel 9: 9 - 13.

Introduction and Recap

We've picked up the story at a very interesting point in Jesus' early ministry. We've seen the acceleration of his influence through healing, deliverance from evil, teaching, and remarkable miracles. We've seen him travelling around Galilee to all sorts of different towns and villages, increasing his influence. We've seen thousands and thousands of people coming - the numbers seem to be very great - from ever increasing distances (I said in an earlier episode that the distances could be up to 150 kilometres); people travelling in order to catch sight of Jesus, hear him speak and, in some cases, receive miracles from him. This is the general story that we've been looking at. There are two threads to the story to mention before we look at this particular text.

First of all, the last two episodes recount two very remarkable miracles which we need to keep in mind - they're the immediate background to this event. First of all, the healing of the man with leprosy, who came pushing through to see Jesus (came into a town, which he wasn't supposed to do because rules and social conventions suggested he needed to stay out of town) and he received a remarkable miracle. Jesus called him to go up to Jerusalem, where the rules of the Law of Moses were that the priest decided whether he'd been healed or not and made a record of that. We assume he did that and that message got through to the ruling authorities in Jerusalem. We've seen a remarkable healing of a man with leprosy and then, in the last episode (episode 8), we described the healing of the paralysed man who was let down through the roof of a house by men, on a stretcher, and there were Pharisees and Teachers of the Law observing Jesus critically, and Jesus made the staggering claim and that he could forgive this man's sins. In fact, he pronounced the forgiveness of sins before he even healed him and then he said that the Son of Man had authority both to heal and to forgive - thus proclaiming his deity, his Messiahship, his power.

This was a challenge to the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law but everyone else was excited. These two events have taken place, just beforehand - some remarkable individual miracles. The Gospel writers have decided which miracles to tell us about; there's always a reason why they give each story, and we've tried to think of some of the reasons for those two stories.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Jesus is not working alone; he is gradually forming a group of disciples and this started when he was with John the Baptist, down by the River Jordan (much further south than Galilee, before he came back and started his public ministry) when Peter, Andrew, John, Philip and Nathanael were drawn into his discipleship group. We saw, in Luke 5, that Jesus takes this a step further in the remarkable incident by the lakeside of Galilee when the four fishermen (Peter and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers who are working together in different boats) are called by Jesus, after a miraculous catch of fish, to leave their jobs and literally follow him on the road - go from place to place with him. What we are seeing is Jesus gathering together a group of committed followers and disciples and we know that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, are among them and we can assume that the ones mentioned by John, in John 1, from earlier times (Nathanial and Philip) are either in that group, or are going to join that group shortly, as committed followers. He's gathering committed followers and we know eventually there will be twelve in his central group, which became known as the Apostles. That hasn't happened yet; he is paving the way for that process to happen. 

The Call of Matthew

Having called Andrew and Peter and James and John to leave their jobs, leave their livelihoods, and go with him on the road, we then have this very remarkable incident referred to here concerning Matthew.

Matthew's Gospel was probably written by Matthew himself (so this could be an autobiography, a telling of his own story here) and this is one of the reasons why I've chosen Matthew's account - this story is recounted, also, in Mark 2 and Luke 5. Matthew 9: 9 - 13,

‘As Jesus went on from there (that is Capernaum, where he'd been before,for the last incident), ‘As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”’

Matthew 9:9-13,NIV
Customs Officer/Tax Collector

Let's try and imagine this scene. Jesus is leaving the lakeside village, or town, of Capernaum and he's heading out of town; he's going on one of the roads. We know that one of the roads nearby was a major trade route. It's quite possible that he's on that major trade route. People came through Galilee, in large numbers, on trading missions because Galilee in Israel was situated between major trading powers both in the north and, also, Egypt in the south. There was a lot of travel going through Galilee, a lot of people trading and as Jesus comes out he's probably on one of these main roads. There's probably a lot of people travelling with heavy laden goods that they're taking from one place to another, and then there's a tax collector's stand (or booth, or little office) set up on the side of the road. It's not in town, it's on the side of the road. This suggests to us that we are talking about customs: taking customs duty for goods travelling through the country and Matthew is a customs officer, or a tax collector. He's working for the local ruler. The local ruler's name is Herod Antipas (one of the sons of Herod the Great) who ruled Galilee at the time and ruled in a nearby town, called Tiberias, which wasn't that far away, right by the Sea of Galilee. Can you imagine the scene? Matthew is sitting at his office desk, so to speak, on the road and his job is to stop travellers to see what goods they're carrying and, if they're carrying goods that demand some taxation, some duty, then he must get the money off them and then pay it to King Herod Antipas and his authority. That's his job. Almost certainly, he wouldn't be on his own. Nobody else is mentioned, but it would be a dangerous job to be on your own - there'd be others with him, perhaps guards, perhaps a fellow tax collector.

I wonder if you can imagine the scene? Matthew sees a group of men walking along the road, particularly men, Jesus and his male disciples and others, no doubt, with them, and he sees Jesus approaching him. It's very interesting that the only thing that is said, is Jesus says to Matthew, as he approaches the tax booth, “Follow me.” That's a very surprising thing to say and it's particularly surprising because the tax collectors of that era were always working for rulers (either the Romans in Judea or, in this case, for Herod Antipas). They're working for rulers who demanded a certain amount of money from them but allowed them the possibility of collecting more money than they gave to them. In other words, making money themselves out of their job - they could make a lot of money and some tax collectors were very rich. We see an example of that later on in Luke's Gospel: Zaccheus the tax collector. Some were very rich but almost all were very unpopular. The ordinary people didn't like the tax collectors because of their corruption and the way they took money from people to, basically, provide themselves with a comfortable lifestyle. They were considered to be collaborators, either with the Romans or with the unpopular ruler, Herod Antipas (who wasn't fully Jewish and represented the family of Herod the Great, his father, which was a very unpopular family). Jesus comes to this unpopular tax collector on the road and says, “Follow me.”

Matthew Follows Jesus

Can we understand what's going on here? Almost certainly, Matthew will have encountered Jesus because Jesus was travelling around there all the time. He'd been ministering for some months - possibly more than a year by now. We don't know the exact timing - crowds, huge crowds, were going along the roads to see Jesus so he'd have heard all the stories. He may even have been a resident of nearby Capernaum, which was why he was working on the road nearby; he might have seen Jesus there; he might have seen Jesus in the synagogue. It seems likely that he knew quite a lot about Jesus; he might even have had some personal acquaintance with him. He knew enough about Jesus to know what he was about. The story of Jesus was on everybody's lips - it was the big story of the time. Everybody was talking about him - by far the most famous person around at that particular time, because he'd caused an absolute sensation during the time that he'd been ministering after he came back to Galilee from the River Jordan. Jesus says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew immediately knew what that meant. Other words may have passed between them, Jesus may have expanded. We've just got the heart of what he said here, but he probably didn't say very much. He looked him in the eye and said, “Follow me” and Matthew immediately knew what that meant. He'd obviously been thinking about Jesus and Jesus' claims; he'd obviously been stirred by them and Jesus knew that he'd been stirred by those claims before he approached the tax collector's desk there on the road and made this remarkable command, “Follow me” - or invitation. He's inviting Matthew to join his group of disciples and, interestingly enough, Matthew got up and followed him.

Tax Collectors and Sinners

Now that's astonishing! What would his colleague at the desk say when Matthew says, “Excuse me, I need to go and join this man, this prophet, from Nazareth. I need to go and join his group of followers and I'll have to just leave my work.” Was he going to come back, or not? I'm not sure how clear that was. It's interesting that the text then describes a social event that followed. It appears that very soon after this moment on the road, Matthew said to his friends, “I'm having a party. I want to introduce you to my new teacher, my new religious teacher and my new prophet, who I'm following. His name is Jesus of Nazareth.” They had all heard about Jesus so they came, but who would these people have been? The account tells us: ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ Tax collectors were social outcasts and the sinners in question there are probably other business people involved in black marketeering and corruption in the country - they had a kind of shady business community, of which the tax collectors were a key part. They had a big network, a business network, that was operating some kind of a black market and maybe some extortion and other things. We don't know the details but we do know what sort of people were there: sinners. People who were considered irreligious by the religious leaders, who were considered outside the religious community because they just were materialistic, selfish and corrupt. That's the sort of people that Matthew hung around with and those are the sort of people he invited to his party. What an extraordinary party! “I'm giving up my job, I'm starting a new job on the road and I just want to introduce you to the person I'm following,” and he introduces all his friends to Jesus.

We have an extraordinary situation: we have Jesus, tax collectors and sinners, and Jesus' disciples (the handful of people he's gathered, which would have included Peter, Andrew, James and John who we mentioned earlier on - they've left their nets and they're travelling with Jesus - and now they get to this extraordinary party). Also, watching from the outside, are the Pharisees and the others who think this is wrong: this man should not be mixing with these people. Why is he connecting with people who are corrupt, selfish, materialistic, irreligious? They don't respect God, they don't come to the synagogue, they don't go to the Temple for the feasts. It's a very dramatic situation that is unfolding. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Why eat with social outcasts, the irreligious? Why not connect with the religious community? Is, basically, what they were saying. ‘on hearing this, Jesus said,’ - and this is a wonderful and challenging bit of teaching that I want to concentrate on now - he said, ‘“It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”’ In other words, he's come to reach the people who are spiritually in a bad way and these tax collectors and sinners are a good example of that. ‘But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus Quotes Hosea

Here we have an interesting thing to think about. There's an expression that Jesus uses here: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ and he's saying to the Pharisees, “You need to work out what that means.” Where does that phrase come from? It comes from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. It comes from the book of Hosea and Jesus actually quotes it twice according to Matthew - in Matthew 9: 13, here, and in Matthew 12 : 7, which we'll come to in a future episode. He asked people to try and work out what this phrase means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ Going back to Hosea 6, and looking at the original context is helpful. In the original context, we have the passage immediately before it describing the Israelites saying, “It's really time for us to get right with God again. We need to go back to him. We've been drifting away, we've been sinning, we've been following idols. We need to get back to the Lord.” but they're saying it in a half-hearted kind of way and in Hosea 6: 4 - 6, we have this statement:

‘“What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth—then my judgments go forth like the sun. For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.’

Hosea 6:4-6, NIV

Basically, God is saying, through the prophet Hosea, to the ancient Israelites, “Look, you say you want to get right with me but your love is like the morning mist. You know, the mist is there for a moment but it just evaporates as the sun gets up. Your love for me just evaporates, because it's not really sincere.” What's not sincere about it is that they're going through the motions of religion. In other words, sacrifice. They're doing their religious duties, religious sacrifices were part of their religious duties, but God says, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, (the) acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.’ This is the saying that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 9: 13; he says you've got to work out what this saying means. Let's think about it and see if we can work out what this saying means in order to understand what Jesus is talking about here.

Mercy is an attitude of kindness and compassion to our neighbours and those in need, as well as representing a right attitude to God. The Greek word implies kindness to those in need; the Hebrew word, a right attitude towards our neighbours. So, God isn't so interested in you doing religious duties if your heart attitude towards other people is wrong: judgemental, critical, hostile, and unloving. What he's basically saying to the Pharisees is, “You know, you're judging these sinners; you haven't got a merciful attitude towards them. All you are looking at is the religious duties they don't perform, which you perform, but there's more to it than that.” God himself, through Jesus Christ, has mercy on those, and he wants to reach the social outcasts, the irreligious, the mocking and the scoffing, the selfish people, the materialist people, and the people on the black market. He wants to reach those kinds of people for himself and he's already reached one of them - Matthew. Matthew's been won over; he's become a disciple. He could bring others with him. God wants mercy and a merciful attitude in his followers. If we look at the context in which this phrase is used by Jesus in the New Testament (in other words, Matthew 9: 13 and Matthew 12: 7), you'll see three different groups to which this merciful attitude is applied. In this case, it's the social outcasts - the corrupt business and tax collecting community - the social outcasts. In Matthew 12: 7 the context suggests those who are physically hungry, like the disciples who are hungry on the Sabbath, and those in need of healing, such as the man with the withered hand. Those are the two incidents that we see in Matthew 12: the man with the withered hand was healed by Jesus and Jesus made provision for the hunger of his disciples by allowing them to eat corn from the fields. There are three different applications of this mercy: social outcasts; people with physical needs, like hunger, and people who need healing. Jesus is saying that we need to have a kind and compassionate attitude towards those people in order to really know Jesus himself, understand his mission and get right with God ourselves.


My reflections on this passage: it's a great surprise! We haven't heard of Matthew before, we didn't know that tax collectors were going to be called into the discipleship group and Matthew was going to become an Apostle later on. That's a surprise! But it's a very exciting surprise and, in fact, there are a number of surprises because there are a number of people in that group of twelve you think, “Well, I'm not sure that they really qualify, that they should be there.” For example, there's another one called Simon the Zealot - we'll talk about him on another occasion - but he was an anti-authoritarian freedom fighter who was willing to take up arms against the authorities and start a rebellion and a civil war. That's his background. Obviously, he changed when he became a disciple of Jesus. You've got Matthew the tax collector, you've got all sorts of people mixed together in the group. It's exciting! It's a surprise. 

Another reflection is that not very much is told about how this series of events followed through so I've tried to fill out some of the details just to make it clearer for us. It's a wonderful surprise and it emphasises to us the power of calling. When Jesus Christ calls you, that is a very powerful calling and it changes your social expectation. Sometimes it changes our job, sometimes it changes our location, and sometimes it changes our family structures. Sometimes, we're called to mission - very directly we move from one country to another, or from one place to another - but we must not under-emphasise the power of God's calling. What has the Holy Spirit called you to do in the service of God?

My final comment would be to reflect again on God's amazing mercy. It's very common in religion to think that God's main desire is for us to be morally good and to fulfil religious duties and various religious laws that different religions have. It appears that in Christianity the priorities are somewhere else: we're never going to earn our salvation, it's going to be given to us as a free gift through Jesus' death on the cross and through our repentance and faith in him. Christianity is very much about what happens in the heart. The things that you do outwardly are always of secondary importance to what is going on inwardly. A merciful and a kind attitude to people who are outsiders, who are being judged and criticised in our society, is a top priority for Christian discipleship and Christian life. Here is a good example: Jesus had compassion on the tax collectors and the sinners; he reached out to them; he spoke to them; and one of them he called into his discipleship group. That's wonderful! He can call outcasts, social outcasts, into his Kingdom at any point and some of them end up in leadership like Matthew did, as one of the Apostles and also as one of the Gospel writers. This is a story of redemption. God desires mercy not sacrifice from us and he is merciful himself. He wants people who are excluded and outside to find his grace, to find his salvation, and to be called to serve him just like Matthew was, as recorded here in Matthew 9.

Thanks for joining us for this episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Matthew was a social outcast and yet Jesus calls him to be one of his followers. What was his immediate reaction? For those who remember their first reactions to becoming a Christian, share them
  • Discipleship
    1. The things that you do outwardly are always of secondary importance to what is going on inwardly.’ Discuss this phrase in the light of your own life and reaching out to others.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Hosea in the Old Testament reveals a picture of mercy. How can you show mercy to others? Read the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18:21 - 35, Series 7 Episode 10.
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